Banning a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead could stop “some nitwit at the Pentagon” from attempting to fight a nuclear war, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday.
It remains unclear how far Smith is willing to go to block the low-yield warhead, dubbed the W76-2. The Smith-authored $733 billion draft House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), due for a committee vote Wednesday, would not authorize the roughly $19.5 million the Navy requested for fiscal 2020 to deploy the weapon, which the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has already started building.
The semiautonomous Department of Energy agency has $65 million in 2019 funding for the W76-2, which the agency created by modifying the high-yield W76-1. The civilian nuclear weapon steward has said it will deliver the first of these weapons to the Navy by Sept. 30.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has already approved a 2020 NDAA that authorizes all requested Pentagon and DOE nuclear weapon spending. Assuming the full House approves its 2020 NDAA with the W76-2 ban intact, Smith will have to take his proposed ban before a conference committee filled with senators who support the low-yield warhead.
During last year’s debate on the 2019 NDAA, Smith described W76-2 as a “bad idea” that lowered the threshold of nuclear use. He said the only credible way to stop an adversary from using a low-yield nuclear weapon is to make that foe believe the price for doing so is a disproportionate, high-yield retaliatory strike by the United States.
Smith did not buy then the Donald Trump administration’s contention that the very existence of a low-yield nuclear weapon, which could be shot promptly at an adversary, would check that nation from using a low-yield weapon of their own to quickly escalate and win a conventional conflict.
On Monday, the Armed Services chair held that line.
“Do not launch a single solitary nuclear weapon because it inevitably leads to a catastrophic result,” Smith said at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.